The Historians’ Craft: A Call for Understanding

By April 14, 2008

I hope this isn’t a topic that has been discussed here before. I have been thinking lately about what it means to practice academic history. The recent post and comments about the new Emma Smith film, in correlation with my seemingly never-ending journey along the path of professionalization, have caused me to ask myself if the history undertaken by trained historians is any different than the study of the past by others. I hope that I am not constructing a straw man, but it seems that some people in the church have developed a sort of hostility toward those that focus their academic studies on Mormonism. My personal opinion about such hostilities is that they represent a reflection of how non-historians don’t really understand historians and their methods. This misunderstanding causes them to label such historians as threats. Thus, I thought I might embark on a few posts in the next few weeks trying to explain what it is that professional historians do, how that is different than what people were taught in high school, what analytical tools we bring into our research, and the relative strengths and weaknesses in academic history as a discipline. I then hope to start a conversation about how the tools of the historical craft affect the ways in which we do Mormon history. For me, this is an introspective but also expository exercise that I hope can foster discussion between those of us trained as historians and the rest of the world around us.My quest for today is to try and summarize the process which historians use to create academic histories. This explanation will be somewhat general, but I hope to encompass the essence of historical research and writing. Academically trained historians, like all those who write history, tell stories. Nevertheless, good academic historians take the story-telling to another level by incorporating argument and analysis into their narratives. We don’t just want to tell the story; we want to know what the story means and why it happened.

We build these stories by drawing from two pools of information: our own research and the research of others. Personal research generally focuses on what historians call primary sources. A primary source is a piece of evidence produced first-hand by someone close to the specific historical event or phenomena to be studied. We put together stories by analyzing primary sources, comparing what they say to other pieces of evidence, and then by putting them into a logical organizational scheme whether it be a time line, series of causes and effects, or thematic snapshots. As we analyze sources, we take into account their provenance (how the source got into our hands) and who or what produced the source. We also try to understand the limits of a particular source -we want to know what these sources don’t tell us as well.

In the midst of examining these primary sources and putting together analysis, we also take into account what other historians have said about the same or similar evidence. We can never examine every relevant document or talk to every person who participated in a specific event, so we rely on the work of others to contextualize and enrich our own studies. If our particular reading of the evidence disagrees with something another historian has said, we try to show why the other interpretation was wrong, and what makes our interpretation better. Such reinterpretations occur because historians find new evidence, they look at different kinds of evidence, they have made incorrect assumptions, or they decide to tell the story from a different perspective.

Good historians also try to identify and acknowledge the intellectual baggage that they bring to the study of a particular subject. Objectivity is a myth, and the “Truth” (notice the capital T) will always be obscured by the human filters through which historical sources are produced and read. All of us have a particular world view that prejudices the ways that we understand the world. Yet the professional processes of history offer us tools to conscientiously try to put forth our best efforts and bring forth the best possible historical examinations

As for the academic study of Mormon history, I think there are a few aspects of the process of historical examination make it difficult for some Mormon audiences. First, academic history is complex and it does reject the concept of an absolute, knowable truth. It also looks at the human world as a closed-circuit-there is little room for Divine manifestation or intervention. Only documentable events can enter a narrative. Historians break down the myths of and authentic and static world-they demonstrate the infinite complexity of the human mosaic. I would love to hear anybody else’s thoughts on the historical craft and how it relates to Mormon history. Do you agree with my portrayal of academic history and historians? Is there a tension between academic history and Mormonism?


  1. Joel, thanks for this well-timed and relevant post. I think that one difficulty that historians of Mormonism have is that we’re writing about a people that has a deep and abiding love for its own history. Mormons use stories about their past to define themselves as God’s people, and therefore they are very protective of certain interpretations of events and individuals. Academic historians, as you note, write with different agendas and biases. Arrington believed that he could show that devotional histories and academic histories were complimentary. I think that Ron Esplin has tried to carry on that optimism, despite the challenges that historians close to the church have faced over the last several decades. I think that the two approaches to the past can in some instances be complimentary, but in other instances politics get in the way.

    Comment by David G. — April 14, 2008 @ 3:30 pm

  2. Great post, Joel. These are issues that I kick around in my head each week during Sunday School as I debate whether or not to comment and participate. I think that there is definetely a tension between academic history and Mormonism, though I don’t think that there needs to be (or maybe I’m just trying to tell myself that there doesn’t).

    I think that appropriate historical context and interpretation can often add much to the average rank-and-file Mormon’s appreciation for various aspects of Mormonism, but I’m painfully aware that many within the church don’t appreciate such commentary.

    Comment by Christopher — April 14, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

  3. Thanks for putting this out for discussion. I look forward to more on this from you. I had a discussion with a friend just last week on how I look at history and he had a really hard time understanding an academic approach to history. I tried my best to explain how you can have a difference with a devotional approach to history and how that can be an honest, good-faith difference. I didn’t get the sense that the “good-faith” nature of the approach got through to him. I got the sense from him that if there is a difference with the perceived traditional interpretation, then there’s something wrong with you. So, I don’t think I really got through to him, which was pretty frustrating.

    Comment by Jared T — April 14, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

  4. Joel,

    I look forward to these posts. I think the tension can work in multiple directions, between U.S. or Western historians and Mormon historians, between church members and non-Mormon historians, between Mormon historians and church members, etc.

    I think the most fruitful tension to explore would be the difference between popular understandings of history and academic understandings of history. How do average Mormons conceptualize or remember their history and how does this compare and contrast with the ways that Mormon historians think about the past?

    One of the big questions for me is why Richard Bushman’s 1969 essay, “Faithful History,” was so widely admired by Mormon historians, and yet few if any of them actually took Bushman’s advice in their research and writing. Maybe Mormon historians are so converted by their academic training that they find it nearly impossible to be faithful to the models of their scriptures and the memory of their people.

    Comment by Sterling — April 14, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  5. The AHA’s standard of professional conduct says “Individuals from all backgrounds have a stake in how the past is interpreted, for it cuts to the very heart of their identities.” That’s a succinct statement of why there can be tension between academic and devotional history, and the adherents of both. Academics identify themselves in part as blind to divine involvement in human history, and devoted to their specialized evaluation of the sources. Devotional Mormons identify themselves in part by their recognition of divine involvement in human history, and are devoted to a different but equally specialized evaluation of the sources. We may react strongly and personally to the “other side,” whichever that is, because the other’s approach often ignores or even denigrates not only our work, but us. It “cuts to the heart” with all the pain that suggests.

    I don’t find the two approaches as absolutely antagonistic, although members of the two camps are very often antagonistic toward each other. I think that when we do history right, we arrive at pretty much the same destinations, although our routes for getting there may be quite different.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 14, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

  6. >>It also looks at the human world as a closed-circuit-there is little room for Divine manifestation or intervention.

    This is actually less true in recent years thanks to the efforts of scholars like George Marsden, Mark Noll, Richard Bushman, and others who feel that it is possible to approach the interpretation of history in a faith-informed way, even if one should not allow one’s confessional commitments to dictate one’s evaluation of the reliability of the evidence itself.

    Comment by Chris — April 14, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

  7. Chris (and anybody else) I wrote extensively about the evangelical historians and Mormon history here. Suffice it to say that I see their task and that of Mormon historians as somewhat different; the evangelicals use their faith to orient how they read the events of American religious history. This is qualitatively different, I think, from the problem facing Bushman.

    Comment by matt b — April 14, 2008 @ 7:15 pm

  8. I see the difference as a story about group identity and allegiance. By invoking academic standards of history we represent our desire to belong to that community. By invoking devotional history, we represent our desire to remain with a community of worshipers. I find that I can describe my insights in terms relevant to the different communities if I am attentive and committed to the interaction. Seems to me that this is a different version of Paul’s answer to ethnic variability, his request that we be Greek to the Greeks, Roman to the Romans. The real antagonism comes when one side proposes that the other must enter the other culture willy nilly.

    As for the problem, I think it comes in this incessant desire we have to divorce discourse from context by making all discourse withstand scrutiny in every community (a drawback to the way we have implemented the internet discourses, frankly). What I write for “historians” probably isn’t useful for “believers,” and what I write for believers is generally uninteresting to historians. This is my complaint about the oeuvre of the Tanners’ ministry–they make it difficult to allow different subcultures to engage in unfettered internal discourse. Incidentally, I think this is relevant to Obama’s recent verbal misstep in San Francisco. A phrase that makes perfect sense to one group, unless translated carefully to another culture group, has potential to offend.

    The Mormon historian not fitting in would do well to remember her/his response to the wardmember aggressively encouraging the latest multi-level marketing scheme plagiarizing the Word of Wisdom. We none of us love another subculture forced upon us.

    Disclaimer: I do not always follow my own advice in this respect and am therefore susceptible to complaints of hypocrisy.

    Comment by smb — April 14, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

  9. David, Christopher, Jared, and Ardis;

    I would agree that there is really no need for antagonism between academic history and believing history. My overall argument in these next few posts will posit that the what really creates misunderstandings between both sides are the distinctive politics and purposes that motivate each endeavor. I agree with Ardis that we follow different intellectual routes/methods to derive our conclusions, but I would also argue that our motivations and destinations are often, but not always, dissimilar as well.


    I read Marsden’s first book a long time ago and haven’t read any Noll, so I can’t speak informatively about the way that they are perceived in the academy. I think I can speak a little to Bushman’s influence. Bushman allows Joseph Smith the intellectual possibility of actually believing what he said without being crazy or manipulative. On the other hand, I think that many scholars outside the field of religious history simply view the work of historians like Bushman as evidence that religion deserves to be part of the historical world. Like gender, race, and nationalism, religion is another socio-cultural factor that has caused people to act historically in irrational ways. (This is not my opinion, but it is one that I have heard before in seminars) I hope I’m wrong in my overall sense of the importance of religion to the field of American history, but that’s the story here at this Big Ten institution.


    I love Bushman’s essays on faithful history, but I don’t know if such faithful methods would fly when trying to publish in major academic journals.

    Comment by Joel — April 14, 2008 @ 10:37 pm

  10. You know the negative backlash to academic church history in the late 1980s and 90s really coloured my first attempt taking on faithful history.

    Since then I have grown up and seen the difficulties as opportunities. It has given me a chance to grow my faith in a way that also helps me to understand the issues.

    In the Fall I was doing research on the 1978 revelation on Blacks and the Priesthood. It would have in the past been a hard subject. But since then I have served in councils with bishops and as a clerk in a branch presidency. I have seen how priesthood leaders make decisions and how they flow out of natural opinions, that then work in concert with revelation not against it.

    So suddenly that made me understand better that the councils of the church work in a similar fashion, that they diliberate, argue, agree and pray. This for me made the actual academic research and discovery one which built my faith in the leaders of the church and common sense backed by spiritual power.

    That is how I justify my fusion with both, while remembering the audience may not care like I do about the issue. Just the argument and the “facts”.

    Comment by JonW — April 14, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

  11. Hi, Matt,

    I see what you mean. Noll, Marsden, et. al. do not have the same kind of stake in the historicity of particular historical events (except the Biblical ones, but those are outside the period they’re interested in). Perhaps a better example would have been Rick Kennedy:

    “Miracles in the Dock: A Critique of the Historical Profession’s Special Treatment of Alleged Spiritual Events,” Fides et Historia, 26 (1994): 7-22.

    His approach to evaluating the historicity of miracles reminds me a bit of the way Bushman treats the witnesses.

    Comment by Chris — April 14, 2008 @ 11:49 pm

  12. First, I am very please with you pointing out that objectivity is a myth (and myth, meaning a founding story, an unrealistic but perhaps noble goal). Novick’s That Noble Dream is a book I recommend to all those interested in writing or reading history.

    Second, I believe some leaders of the Church are somewhat wary of historians because of the element of “naturalizing” what they see as the miraculous. The more sterile historical treatments can cause waves if they seem to delete God from the process. This view can be tempered by keeping in mind that it is through small and simple, sometimes seemingly natural things, that God works with us and with the Church. The “large-scale miracles” so to speak seem to be reserved for monumental occasions such as the passing of the prophet’s mantle as in the case of Brigham Young, or the 1978 revelation on blacks and the priesthood. Even these, however, are often painted by the historian as natural, caused by cultural taste, political movements, etc. The suspicions aren’t likely to go away.

    On thing that helped me in understanding why the Church does correlated history the way it does is reading the essay on “exemplary history.” See “Advocacy and Inquiry in the Writing of Latter-day Saint History.” Another thing was reading Ian Barbour’s Myths Models and Paradigms. When one understands the intent behind the history one can read the history keeping the intent in mind.

    Lastly, what source would you advise amateur historians read? Is there a book available that talks more about these issues? Novick’s book was the one that came to mind for me, but it doesn’t talk about method as much as it talks about the historical profession.

    Comment by BHodges — April 15, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  13. Chris: Where can I find that article? A quick google search yielded little. I found it referenced on your blog, though.

    Comment by BHodges — April 15, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  14. I’d be happy to email it to you, if you provide an address.

    Comment by Chris — April 15, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

  15. Received. Thanks.

    Comment by BHodges — April 15, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

  16. Thanks very much for this thought-provoking and clearly phrased post. A couple of questions: Is it really that easy to compartmentalize “academic” and “devotional” histories? Are they merely products of different methodological considerations, or does one assume primacy over the other? For example, when historians take an academic look at devotional history, often the result is the conclusion that the devotional historian by and large suppresses evidence that is damaging to his claim. When academic history is done well, as you point out, one attempts to account for all the evidence (though this is, as you also point out, impossible). Is it really the same thing as the devotional historian arguing against the academic historian’s evidence as improperly skewed?

    What I’m trying to ask is whether it is simply a question of different realms or audiences, or whether these different arenas are constituted so as to be antagonistic to each other. Can we really speak of a devotional history rather than, simply, a devotional?

    Comment by jupiterschild — April 16, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

  17. jupiterschild,

    Your question gets to the heart of what I am grappling with in this post. I really think that devotional and academic histories attempt to explore the past from two different theoretical and methodological viewpoints. The truth is that each is better than the other for undertaking certain kinds of exploration. I think that this concept will become more apparent as I continue my discussion of what academic history consists. In subsequent posts I will turn to discussions of methodology and theory. In my mind, academic history and its methods emerged from the Enlightenment tradition while the devotional history follows a much older religious world-view. Insofar as the Enlightenment was a reaction to religious ways of narrating the world, I can see a certain level of antagonism between the two approaches. But in this post-modern, post-structural world, the Enlightened, modern approach has been shown to be built on certain hidden assumptions. When we are aware of these assumptions, I think the two approaches look more like apples and oranges than two competing teams. I hope you’ll tune in for my subsequent posts.

    Comment by Joel — April 17, 2008 @ 7:45 am


Recent Comments

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”

Roger T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Since I work in Mormon studies, I tend to read a lot. It's impossible to keep up with everything being published, but over the past…”

Jeff T on Q&A with Taylor Petrey,: “Thanks, Taylor!”

Jeff T on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Matt!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Jana! My experience with Armand, too, has been that of generosity and genuine care for Mormon Studies as a broad and inclusive field. And…”